Neal Brenner who runs Harvard’s Urban Theory Lab and Christian Schmid at ETH in Zurich have argued that the definition of the “urban” used by international agencies, governments and the vast majority of academics, is at best problematic and at worst totally biased. To start with, the statistics used by the Indian national census bureau are unreliable. Different states use different parameters and a huge number of small towns with populations over 5,000 people are not classified as urban (Benner and Schmid, 2014). But at a more fundamental level, they argue that “The urban can no longer be understood with reference to a particular “type” of settlement space, whether defined as a city, a city-region, a metropolis, a metropolitan region, a megalopolis, an edge city, or otherwise.” (Brenner, 2017). It is not a specific state, typology, or archetype, but a prevailing condition that spreads through infrastructure, communication, technology, the market and political systems. There is no space out of the urban anymore – we have entered the era of what they call “planetary urbanism”.
Our own ethnographic and architectural research in Mumbai and the Konkan, conducted over the last five years, demonstrate that simple urban-rural binaries are missleading. Like the anthropologist Anthony Leeds (1994), we observe that the rural has become a subset of the urban. According to him the rural cannot be reduced to the ‘non-urban’ in so far as it is under the financial, technological and institutional influence of cities. It is important to note that in India villages also exert influence on cities – as people, ideas and institutions also keep flowing from the former to the latter.
Our understanding of the urban departs from neo-marxists critics of the urban condition as the ultimate form of captalist egemony. It also rejects the notion held by international agencies and governments that urbanization is synonymous with development. We believe that the urban cannot be reduced to either a negative –the destruction of traditional lifestyles and natural resources– or a positive – access to higher living standards in the form of modern amenities. The kind of urbanization we observe is based on community networks and mobility. A home in each the village and the city allows families to establish life-long strategies based on the movement from one to the other. Two places, one space. These movements are the pulse of an urbanisation that eludes statistics. We coined the term ‘circulatory urbanism’ to encapsulate this phenomenon.
The kind of urbanization we are describing stretches back and forth from the city’s homegrown settlements to remote villages. It blends together urban and rural and confuses academics, architects, planners and policy-makers, who usually prefer to dismiss it altogether as backward or informal. This is unfortunate, because a better understanding of circulatory urbanism and homegrown habitats in cities and villages – and the kind of social and physical mobility that drives their development – could pave the way for a far more innovative and sustainable development.
What we see happening in most Konkan villages is striking. This is not the tabula rasa model of development fuelled by speculative or political interests (elements of which have crept along the coastal beach-belts and cities). It is rather an incremental transformation of traditional structures and lifestyles connected to the history of the people who navigate between urban and rural worlds. Just as they bring in their rural lifeworlds into the city’s fabric, constructing habitats from scratch for example, they also take back their urban experiences and infuse it into their ancestral villages.
These transformations are particularly apparent in the architecture emerging in villages, which bring urban themes and aspiration to the next level of creative expression. Many families have shifted from building houses in stone, bamboo, hay, mud and cow dung to building with bricks, concrete, steel and tiles – most of which is prefabricated. With the rise of ecological consciousness and a keener awareness of the limitations of industrial materials, we also observed that some people were going back to traditional materials, while innovating on the design. An increasing number of families also build modern kitchens and toilets in their houses. The development of water infrastructure is typically an effort that extends beyond single families, and involves several houses around, all of whom contribute through labour or investment.
The same people who, in the city, are extremely restricted in their home’s appearance, because of limited spaces and the risk of demolition, can freely express themselves when they design their village homes. As a result we witness an explosion of colours and styles worthy of the most extravagant Bollywood productions. Indian villages are living laboratories for contemporary vernacular architecture. Every community takes inspiration from specific sources – a Buddhist temple that mixes and merges Nepalese and Japanese elements with Vastu-style colour systems. In Muslim enclaves houses are often ornamented with domes and glass facades reminiscent of Dubai – where so many villagers have gone to work.
A quintessential architectural typology from Mumbai, “the chawl” has made deep inroads into villages throughout the Konkan. Chawls are rows of rooms lined along corridors with shared washrooms on every floor. Chawls were modelled on army baracks and imported to India first by British colonialists and then used by industrial mill owners to accommodate their workers, many of whom came from the Konkan region. It is very symptomatic of the city’s infrastructure for temporary accommodation. In Mumbai the chawl was eventually absorbed into the city’s scarce affordable housing stock. However, the typology is known primarily as associated with workers tenements. We have seen the chawl reproduced and reinvented in various villages to accommodate either migrant labourers from other parts of India, or as a way to accommodate joint-families living in the city but who want to keep a room in the village.
Inhabitants use a range of different resources and strategies to bring about incremental improvements wherever their live. Dual household family structures with one set-up in the village and the other in the city is a widespread modus operandi. If we value the participation of residents in the production of their own habitat, then we should pay very close attention to the ongoing transformation in the Indian landscape – and to the processes at work. A better understanding of existing residential strategies in cities and villages may well highlight the need to promote better access to cities.
The most urgent may not be the erradication of ‘slums’ and the construction of more of the same inadequate rehab housing. It may rather by the preservation of existing homegrown settlements and the provision of more ‘accommodations’ providing an entry point to the city for those who in search of opportunities. Unfortunately, India seems to busy admiring other models of development to realize what is going on in its own backyard. While China is busy supersizing its cities and skyscrapers – pushing for a speculative sprawl that transforms rural regions into urban deserts – India could promote a networked urbanization, which preserves the landscape between villages and cities and encourages regional mobility and local initiatives.